The gay bar has been the central social institution in queer life during the 20th Century. It has been the place where queers, gays, dykes, femmes, leather daddies and mamas, drag queens, gender-fuckers and the curious could all feel welcome. True, these institutions were far from perfect. There was undoubtedly racism, classism, ageism and ableism at work in these places like there was anywhere else. However, queer bars were generally more accepting because there were composed of societal outcasts.
According to Willie Walker, archivist for the GLBT Historical Society, with the establishment of modern bars following prohibition (1933) through the mid 1960s, the gay bar was the only place that queers could publicly gather. "Although that began to change with the establishment of the first community centers, churches, and social services during the later 1960s, those venues were unavailable in many smaller cities and towns, where the bar continues to be the mainstay of gay life."
As the primary public institution for queers, gay bars became the focal point for a power struggle between the state authorities, queer patrons, bar owners and the police. Gay bars were generally operated underground and/or illegally so they were subject to constant persecution by the state authorities. However, the police generally elicited favors (usually cash) in exchange for allowing the bars to continue to operate. Bar owners had to pay up in order to stay in business or the crackdown would come down on the patrons of the bar.
Many people believed that this abuse and harassment stopped after Stonewall, the night when the queers fought back. However, right after Stonewall, raids continued. They were generally met with more resistance but that didn't stop the cops from trying. In 1979, a lesbian bar called Peg's in San Francisco was targeted by an off-duty cop. The cop forced his way in, beat up the bouncer and harassed the patrons inside. The cop was not disciplined afterwards. As late at 1982, an African-American gay bar in New York called Blues was the subject for police abuse. The cops severely beat up the patrons for being both queer and black. The bar and all of its fixtures were ruined.
Within the last two decades, the queer community has spread beyond the bars, reducing the need to go out and drink in order to feel at home. However, the bars do have their place in community and our history.
Find out and share more information on the history of the queer bar at Queer Revolution's discussion of the history of queer bars and our video showing of "Last Call at Maude's." This will take place on Monday, November 29th at 6:30 pm at Laughing Horse Bookstore at 6:30 pm. A $2-3 donation is requested but nobody will be turned away for lack of funds. For more information or if you're interested in QR, e-mail us at email@example.com.